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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Hey--Who's That Guy Next to Karl Rove?

He's the client, George W. Bush, who owes his Iowa win to a history-loving, manic strategist

By James Carney/Ames, Iowa

August 17, 1999
Web posted at: 10:03 a.m. EDT (1403 GMT)

TIME magazine

Karl Rove doesn't come across as a man on the verge of becoming the most renowned political consultant since James Carville. He looks like an owl (with fewer tufts) and has an obsession with history that seems quaint in the age of Jesse Ventura and Warren Beatty. The morning before last week's Iowa straw poll--which passes for a historic event at this infant stage of the presidential race--Rove's client George W. Bush spoke to supporters at a restaurant in Davenport while Rove lurked in the background, a cellular phone in one hand and a massive biography of Benjamin Disraeli in the other. What could Disraeli, the great 19th century British Prime Minister, possibly tell us about Iowa? For Rove, that's easy. Disraeli was a Tory who championed the common man, a "compassionate conservative" more than a century before Bush turned the phrase into a campaign slogan.

Rove's passion for history and its precedents sometimes exasperates Bush, who has been known to roll his eyes when his chief strategist launches into a dissertation on, say, what this race has in common with the election of 1896. But Bush owes his phenomenal political rise--from a novice underdog candidate for Texas Governor in 1994 to the heavily favored G.O.P. front runner for President just five years later--in large part to Rove. On Saturday, when Bush handily won the straw poll, the victory was a validation of a risky campaign plan Rove devised late last year, after Bush won re-election in Texas. The "yellow rose garden" strategy kept Bush in Austin, and off the campaign trail, until mid-June--leaving him just two months to organize for an event in which other candidates had invested years.

The Rove File

Background: Born in Denver to a geologist and a gift-shop manager

Education: Political junkie, never finished college. Now teaches at the University of Texas

Known for Electing Bush Governor and making Texas a G.O.P. state

Quirks: Discoursing on history and unexpectedly bursting into song

But Rove's strategy has worked just fine so far. On Saturday Bush received 7,418 votes to Steve Forbes' 4,921. Elizabeth Dole placed a surprisingly strong third, with 3,410, denying to Forbes what he wanted most from Iowa: the perception that the G.O.P. contest had come down to a two-man race. There's a woman in it now. But if Bush goes on to take the G.O.P. nomination and the White House next year, Rove, who at 48 is playing a major role in a presidential campaign for the first time in his life, will be anointed a genius.

"No, no, no!" Rove bellows, grimacing at the thought--or at least at the prospect of its being put into print. "There are a lot of people working on this campaign," he insists modestly. "I am just one of them." It is true that Rove is one of three fiercely loyal top aides, dubbed "the Iron Triangle," who have all been with Bush since his first campaign for Governor and who form the impenetrable nucleus of the presidential operation. And it is also true that Joe Allbaugh holds the title of campaign manager and that Karen Hughes, the communications director, is closer to Bush personally. But Rove is the intellectual and strategic heart of the campaign, the one adviser to Bush who, insiders say, is indispensable. "Karl plays politics like Bobby Fischer plays chess," says Mark McKinnon, Bush's top media adviser, a former Democrat. "He looks at the whole board and thinks 20 moves ahead."

Rove has been thinking ahead at least since 1973, when he was elected chairman of the College Republicans on a platform of inclusion against a more purist conservative. He won that race with the help of a young South Carolina operative named Lee Atwater, who went on to become the take-no-prisoners strategist behind George Bush's winning presidential campaign in 1988. When he became chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1989, Atwater advocated a "big tent" philosophy for the party. Rove pushed the same philosophy after he opened a political-consulting business in 1981 in Texas, where Republicans laud him as the key player in the Lone Star State's final metamorphosis from a Democratic stronghold to a Republican one.

Rove, who first met George W. in 1973, designed Bush's upset of Democratic Governor Ann Richards in 1994 and then got the political world's attention by making sure that Bush's re-election margin in 1998 was an overwhelming one. The Governor got 68% (with more than 40% of the Hispanic vote), which made Bush an automatic contender for the 2000 nomination. "Karl knew that a dramatic victory was the best way to launch the presidential campaign," says another Bush aide. "So he ran up the score." There is now a Republican holding each of the 29 statewide elective offices in Texas, and nearly every one of them won with Rove's help.

Once an artful practitioner of negative campaigning, Rove--at Bush's direction--has stayed positive in both of the Governor's Texas races. But Rove still plays hardball behind the scenes. When controversy arose recently over the fact that Bush's finance chairman in Maine was an assault-weapons manufacturer, Rove made sure he resigned his post swiftly, and quietly. And when the bitter rivalry in the New York G.O.P. between Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was looking like it might sabotage the mayor's chances in a Senate race against Hillary Clinton, Rove made it known through intermediaries that Governor Bush wanted Pataki to patch things up. The reason: an easy ride for Hillary would hurt Bush's chances of being competitive in New York against the Democratic presidential nominee. (Rove claims he did not broker the peace between Pataki and Giuliani, but two other sources close to the negotiations say Rove got the ball rolling.)

Despite Bush's dependence on Rove, the Governor's patience with his guru can be strained. "The Governor's life with Karl is one of continually trying to control his exuberance," says a campaign source. Rove concedes that Bush likes to tease him for his pedantic enthusiasms. "I am a constant source of amusement to him," he says. And occasionally a source of embarrassment. In 1996 Rove dropped his $3,000-a-month consultant contract with the Philip Morris Cos. Inc. because Texas was engaged in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit against the tobacco companies.

He can also be an irritant to his boss. Bush doesn't appreciate the widely held view that Rove is the brain behind the candidate, and he has publicly reprimanded Rove for being too chummy with the press. During one rough stretch in 1998, according to other insiders, Rove was even barred from the Governor's office (a story Rove insists isn't true). But mostly Bush keeps Rove in line by keeping him off-balance, as he did last spring, when Rove's cellular phone started chirping in the middle of a high-level campaign meeting. The interruption annoyed Bush, who had asked Rove to turn his phone off during meetings. And so, after Rove left the room to take the call, Bush looked up and said, "Lock the door." Rove never got back in that day. But in Iowa last week, he was never far from the Governor's side.

--With reporting by Michael Duffy/Washington


Cover Date: August 23, 1999

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